For the past four years the question about Jake Plummer has been, Is he really that bad, or is quarterbacking the bungling Cardinals an excuse for even the most scatter-armed passer? Last March, having missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan gambled on the latter. In cutting the inconsistent Brian Griese and signing the free agent Plummer to a seven-year, $40 million contract, Shanahan made a move he believes can return his talented team to the elite status it enjoyed while winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and '98.
"There are a lot of people in football, including some guys I respect, who've told me, 'Hey, you're crazy,' " Shanahan says. "They're not high on Jake, but I'm convinced he'll play at a high level here."
Think mile high, which is the standard that was established by Shanahan and John Elway, who has been retired for five years. That would be a drastic change for Plummer, who, at 28, has already experienced a career's worth of low moments. He had four stellar years at Arizona State, and the 49ers' Bill Walsh compared him with Joe Montana. A second-round pick by the Cardinals in 1997, Plummer was spectacular in his second season, defeating the Cowboys in a wild-card game to give the franchise its first postseason victory in 51 years. From then on his Arizona experience was mostly miserable: four consecutive losing seasons, including one in which Plummer threw 24 interceptions and only nine TDs.
Still, thanks to Plummer's scrambling ability and penchant for comebacks—in six seasons he directed 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime-Denver fans were intrigued by him. Last December, as the Broncos were beating the Cardinals 37-7 to close out a 9-7 season, some of the spectators at Invesco Field at Mile High made their feelings known. "They were chanting, 'We want Jake!' " Plummer said after signing with the Broncos. "And I was thinking, I want you."
Plummer had plenty of reasons for wanting them. Shanahan, despite his failure to develop Griese into a worthy successor to Elway, remains the game's top quarterback guru, and the stable of skill players he has assembled helped Denver rank third in the NFL in offense last season. Halfback Clinton Portis, a second-year speedster, gained 1,508 yards to earn NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors—an award won two years earlier by Mike Anderson, who is the Broncos' starting fullback. Crafty veterans Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey have been one of the league's best receiving tandems for six years, and downfield threat Ashley Lelie, a first-round pick in 2002, appears on the verge of stardom. Oh, there's also future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who has more career catches (753) and receiving yards (9,290) than any other tight end in NFL history. Can Plummer, whose poor career numbers (90 touchdowns, 114 interceptions and a 69.0 passer rating) point to impatience and poor decision-making, parlay these riches into a career revival?
Already, most Denver players have been won over by Plummer's outgoing, unpretentious manner, a stark contrast to Griese's aloof, detached persona. "I like Brian, but he wasn't as player-friendly," says center Tom Nalen. "Jake is one of the guys. You can make fun of him and not worry about it because he'll give you crap right back."
So far Plummer has gotten grief for his undistinguished wardrobe ("He's a Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy kind of guy," says Sharpe) and his proclivity for cackling. Nalen describes him as yappy, and backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein says, "Sometimes you want to slap him around and tell him to shut up."
If Plummer doesn't win in Denver, no one will say that the sorry state of the Cardinals was responsible for his disappointing performance. "We'll see who was to blame," Sharpe says. "He's removed from that now, so there are no more excuses. I like to think it was Arizona that was causing his problems, but I'm not going to get on a soapbox and say we've got Johnny Unitas. He has to show us, and everyone else, when he steps on the field."
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